Howard Sounes’ well-written and researched biography of Paul McCartney is a most admirable achievement. Hundreds of books have been written on The Beatles, collectively and individually, and it would seem a daunting task to find something new to say about the Fab Four. Sounes, however, interviewed over 200 sources for Fab, gleaning fascinating new stories and tidbits. Heretofore no biography has gone nearly this extensively into Paul’s later solo years – Sounes takes us all the way through December 2009. He keeps things fresh by scattering these unfamiliar anecdotes regularly across the book’s 600-plus pages, as well as by writing in a lucid prose style.
Within the first ten pages, for example, readers are introduced to the “Black Sheep” of the McCartney family, Paul’s disreputable Uncle Will. Will’s most infamous stunt was stealing the equivalent of almost $382,500 in today’s money from a ship on which he was working in 1949. This is just one of many stories I had never encountered before in my extensive research on the band. On a personal note, along with my Beatles research, I published a long poem, “Beetles Is Gone,” that centers on the band and explores themes of paranoia and conspiracy theories (in the collection Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me). Therefore, I was excited to learn that Paul was apparently obsessed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and read all he could find on the subject.
Sounes remains remarkably unbiased throughout. Although he is a Beatles fan, Sounes admits he was not a fan of Paul’s solo work of the 1970s and 1980s. The author can be fairly critical of Paul’s lyrics, in particular, which may be fair in many cases, but fans are nonetheless sure to find him harping. In part, this criticism could be chalked up to Sounes’ past research on Bob Dylan, one of the finest lyricists of all time (if a poor singer). The author spent so much time studying that caliber of composition that McCartney, in comparison, at least at times comes off as feeble in his estimation. It’s fairly clear that Paul in the 1970s and 1980s would sometimes just toss off lyrics in an offhanded way, as though anything that came out of his famed brain must be pure genius. Sounes does give Paul credit for his enormous melodic gifts and acknowledges that his music became more interesting beginning with Flaming Pie (EMI, 1997). Sounes is particularly moved and impressed by two of Paul’s creative collaborations with producer/musician Youth (né Martin Glover) under the name The Fireman, Rushes (Hydra/EMI, 1998) and Electric Arguments (One Little Indian, 2008).
As a collaborator, Youth’s relationship with Paul has been longer lasting and happier than most. Sounes is frank about the deficiencies in Paul’s character, which in some cases may have marred his creative output. Most musicians and producers with whom McCartney has worked have found him difficult, unwilling to listen or give ground. Even during The Beatles’ reign, Paul angered both Ringo and George by telling them what to play, or in Ringo’s case, getting behind the kit while Ringo was taking a break or even recording new drum parts after Ringo had left the studio. Therefore, over the years Paul has increasingly been surrounded by toadies who fear saying anything that might suggest anything other than that Paul is a consummate genius, lest they lose their job. When producer Nigel Godrich, famed for his innovative work with Radiohead and others, urged Paul to “try harder,” Paul told him to f-off and stormed out of the studio. This was par for the course.
Sounes argues that this petulant attitude, reflecting an egotism that was generated by his early fame and fortune, has caused Macca’s music to suffer. For example, Flowers in the Dirt (EMI, 1989) is established as a pretty decent album that could have been amazing due to the prospect of a full-scale collaboration with the equally talented Elvis Costello. Unfortunately, Paul wasn’t willing to change the way he composed, so Elvis left the building (to use musician Hamish Stuart’s clever phrase) after only three completed songs. Stevie Wonder seems to have been one of the few people to whom Paul deferred. Paul’s insistence on getting his own way caused several members of Wings to quit the band and well-paid musicians to abandon recording studios. Can you imagine quitting a band led by a Beatle? Things must have been damned rough. Paul’s detractors have suggested that he and Linda had few if any real friends and kept to themselves (see “Man We Was Lonely”), and this egotism may have been a cause.
Sounes is also frank about Paul’s deficiencies when it comes to women and relationships. In short, in the 1960s he was a dog. Prior to his marriages, he constantly had flings or quickies with a never-depleted stock of love-struck female fans. One of the saddest aspects of this book is the way in which Paul fouled up his relationship with the lovely, smart, and sophisticated Jane Asher, with whom he had a long relationship and engagement. Jane was an accomplished, serious actress. Paul lived with her at her parents’ home and soaked up the cultured conversation of this well-educated family (her brother was the producer and singer Peter Asher, whom, as half of Peter and Gordon, had success with Lennon/McCartney songs Paul gave them). By general consensus, Jane was good for Paul, perhaps too good for him. Unfortunately, Paul was a product of the Northern English sexism of the post-war period in which he was raised. He thought Jane should give up her career for him and stay at home waiting for him to return from touring. Also, he cheated on her constantly, even after they were engaged. However, Jane, widely regarded as Paul’s equal, wasn’t having it.
Somehow, Linda Eastman prevailed. Paul’s friends were shocked that he would throw over Jane Asher for an uncouth American college dropout who became a photographer to gain entrée to famous rock stars. She possessed little talent in the arts, and in one case she forgot to bring film for her camera when meeting rock glitterati. Linda was well-known by the luminaries of the English rock scene, including Jimi Hendrix and The Who, as a groupie who had, let’s say, “been around.” But she was gunning for Paul and told friends repeatedly that she would bag the Beatle.
Linda came from an acquisitive family that fought and dissembled to get what they wanted. For example, few realize that Linda was of Jewish heritage – her family’s last name was an invention by her lawyer father, Lee, in order to insinuate his family into a WASP-y New England elite. His given name was, oddly enough, Epstein. In another example, after marriage, Linda said she wanted to clear up the widespread misunderstanding that she was related to the Eastmans of Eastman Kodak Company – but she started this rumor in the first place, as means of promoting her photography career. Linda’s father regarded her as a ne’er-do-well, a black sheep. He disdained her interest in rock stars and photography – that is, until she landed a very wealthy Beatle. Then, she quickly became the golden child, according to Sounes. After the marriage, Lee without delay extended his fingers toward The Beatles’ Apple pie, convincing Paul to try to get the other Beatles to have him manage their finances. This attempt to mix family and business was unwise and nepotistic and, of course, the others weren’t having it. The other three Beatles favored another wheeler-dealer, Allen Klein, who was known for getting his clients, including The Rolling Stones, dramatically increased earnings. Later, the other three would regret that decision and sued Klein.
Sadly, this bitter conflict over who would manage their money basically finished The Beatles. Paul’s truculence in this affair would lead John to hurl a brick through Paul’s window. Of course, the arrival of Yoko Ono, popularly credited with breaking up The Beatles, precedes this conflict, and arguably John’s cathexis on Yoko directly led to Linda and Lee Eastman. Yoko’s constant, irritating presence and her interference in The Beatles’ recording process caused the other Beatles anger and resentment. Hurt by his mate and songwriting partner John’s rejection of him in favor of Ono, Paul took on Linda as his constant companion. In fact, they raced to get married before John and Yoko. Then, “when John saw that Paul had married Linda, he decided to marry Yoko,” Sounes writes. Paul was jealous of Yoko’s relationship with John, just as he had been jealous of John’s relationship with Stuart Sutcliff in the early days. Arguably, without Yoko, Paul would not have brought Linda, and thus Lee, into the scene so thoroughly. One of the major lessons of this whole tale is that money is the root of all evil.
After Linda’s death Paul started acting like a horny goat again, and was totally taken in by the scoundrel and poseur Heather Mills. If in her youth Linda was a promiscuous groupie (“a sex-positive fan,” let’s rather say), Heather Mills was a straight-up prostitute, not to mention a jewelry thief, soft porn model, and generally a sleazy person of debased character who parlayed charity projects into tabloid celebrity. She preferred AC/DC to The Beatles, for Christ’s sake. A former professional, Mills had a talent for sex, and this talent seems to have made Paul happy for a time. But Mills was the consummate golddigger. Greedy, haughty, and dishonest, Mills was strongly disliked by Paul’s family and friends. Paul was not thinking with his brain but a lower organ. It cost him dearly.
Speaking of sex, sexuality is a topic that Sounes deals with in intriguing ways. He discusses the sexuality of John Lennon and John’s possible erotic experiences with early Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe and manager Brian Epstein. The possibility of Paul being a homophobe is brought up. Paul reportedly mocked Brian’s homosexuality (as did John). According to Linda’s gay friend Danny Fields, Paul “didn’t like gay” and one collaborator of Paul’s was loudly accosted by Paul’s manager: “What do you mean by bringing someone… so obviously gay to Paul’s Christmas party?” (On the other hand, he was friends with the openly gay art dealer Robert Fraser.) Of course, homophobes are often dealing with repressed homosexual feelings themselves, which we would all seem to have to some extent. Over the years, the relationship between Paul and John has been speculated upon tremendously, and while it was understood to have been platonic, it is clear that John had feelings for Paul that went beyond conventional friendship (see Philip Norman’s recent bio of John). On some level these feelings may have been reciprocated, explaining Paul’s bitter negativity and jealousy toward Sutcliffe, whom he drove out of the band (albeit Stu couldn’t actually play worth a damn).
Lest this account seems to dwell on the negative aspects of Paul, it should be noted that Sounes emphasizes that Paul is essentially a decent human being. He cares deeply for his family, a clan that is described by friends as warm and loving. Paul can be charming and affable, and contrary to past accusations, he is seen to be quite generous at times as well.
There are very few oversights in this compelling bio. One lapse, though, is that Sounes doesn’t explore Paul’s alleged fascination with the occult, especially his reputed interest in Alistair Crowley and the Golden Dawn. Sounes makes an offhanded remark about “magick” but generally dismisses this interest as “mumbo jumbo” in a few phrases. Other writers, such as the controversial but fascinating Beatleologist Geoffry Giuliano, find this interest significant as the dark underbelly of Paul’s cheery, family man persona. Another oversight is his failure to give longtime Beatles assistant Mal Evans credit for the creative role he in played in the Sgt. Pepper concept and the song “Fixing a Hole.”
On the whole, Fab is absorbing and well-crafted from start to finish, spinning many enchanting new stories that will keep Beatle fans thoroughly fascinated.
The paperback edition of Fab will be released on November 21, 2011.Visit: Howard Sounes | Da Capo Press
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon